In a strange turn of events, an all-candidates forum planned for tonight in Arthur was cancelled over concerns about protesters and then revived by the very group that was planning the protest.
Wind Concerns Ontario (WCO), a coalition of 57 grass-roots citizen’s groups opposed to industrial wind turbines, is now sponsoring the meeting tonight at the Arthur Community Centre for Perth-Wellington candidates in the provincial election.
The Wellington Federation of Agriculture was the original sponsor of the meeting, intended to address agricultural issues facing farmers in the riding.
It pulled out this week, citing security concerns.
“Due to the escalating talk of rallies and protests we are being forced to take this step to ensure the safety of the candidates, the farmers entering the meeting, others using these public facilities, and our event organizers,” reads a message posted on the federation’s website.
“There are also issues of potential liability to the hosting agricultural organizations.”
But WCO president John Laforet called that a “bogus excuse.”
“There’s never been a security threat at any Wind Concerns Ontario event in the last three years. We’ve never had an arrest, there’s never been a report of an assault,” he said. “It’s once again John Wilkinson hiding from his constituents.”
Laforet said he was “shocked” by the cancellation, especially since the federation did not contact his organization to discuss concerns about the rally disrupting the meeting.
“This is clearly politically motivated and clearly favours John Wilkinson,” he said, suggesting that the incumbent Perth-Wellington MPP and environment minister may have influenced the decision to cancel the meeting.
“We’ve never had an issue with the federation of agriculture. The federation of agriculture has no experience with Wind Concerns Ontario which would lead them to suggest anything we’re doing would be unsafe,” said Laforet.
“The only person who would want to make an allegation like that would be John Wilkinson.”
Asked to respond to that charge, Wilkinson flatly denied exerting any influence on the federation’s decision to cancel.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “If they decide not to have a
public debate, that’s their decision and I have to respect that. Just like I respected their invitation and was delighted to agree to attend, I also have to respect their decision if they don’t want to have the debate.”
While he agreed to participate in the original all-candidates meeting hosted by the Wellington Federation of Agriculture, Wilkinson said he will not attend now that WCO is behind it.
“I do not go to debates that are organized by my political opponents,” he said, pointing out the WCO is a partisan group that has openly encouraged its members to support the Conservative candidate here. “I go to debates that are organized by third parties.”
He also took issue with Laforet’s claim that he’s trying to hide from constituents.
“I’ll put up my record of being accessible to my constituents in this very big riding just as much as I can,” he said. “And it would take someone from Scarborough to come into our riding and accuse me of not being available to my constituents.”
(WCO is based in Scarborough.)
Still, Laforet said area farmers deserve to hear from the candidates, which is why WCO stepped in to the host the meeting, based on the same format planned by the federation.
“People in Perth-Wellington have a right to an all-candidates meeting on agriculture, and we’re not going to allow the federation to cancel it and blame Wind Concerns Ontario,” he said.
The focus of the meeting, which Laforet is planning to comoderate with Arthur Chamber of Commerce president Wayne Baker, will be agriculture, he said, and not wind turbines. WCO is planning a rally at 7 p.m., before the meeting.
While Perth County Federation of Agriculture president Brent Royce said he understands the concerns of the Wellington federation, a similar all-candidates meeting organized by the Perth organization for Sept. 26 in Mitchell is still on.
“We’re planning on going ahead,” he said Tuesday. “If the protesters want to protest outside, that’s up to them. But we are going to go ahead, and in the meeting we’ll ask everyone to conduct themselves in an orderly manner and let all candidates have the opportunity to fully talk.”
Royce said he hopes to keep the emphasis on topics of interest to local farmers.
“Everyone is welcome to ours, but the primary focus is on agriculture and agricultural issues,” he said.
Tonight’s all-candidates meeting in Arthur will be held at the Arthur Community Centre from 8-10 p.m.
The meeting in Mitchell Sept. 26 will be held at the Crystal Palace starting at 7:30 p.m.
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